(Pastor’s Note: What follows is a meditation shared at this year’s Easter Sunrise service, joyously shared with two neighboring UCC congregations, held on the deck of the Forestry Society Conservation Center in Concord, NH; it’s based on John 20:1-20)
It’s there in the outermost reaches of early memory: a little boy in a crowded schoolyard, crying his eyes out because he can’t find his mother; he’s all alone in a strange city, he doesn’t know anybody at all and he doesn’t know how he’s going to get home. Now, the story was that I was in kindergarten, we were living in Philadelphia at the time, and my mother had hit a couple of red lights on her way to pick me up from school. In truth, I was probably alone for all of… a minute or two (!) before Mom actually arrived to get me. But remember, I’m five, and when you’re five, a minute or two is an eternity; so as far as I was concerned, I was lost and alone forever; just the mere fact that I still remember this 50 years later gives you an idea of just how scared I must have been!
But, in truth, you know what I remember the most about that day? I remember hearing my name. There must have been a hundred voices to be heard in that schoolyard; there certainly had to have been more than one Michael in the crowd, but in the midst of my confusion and fear, I heard my name being called in a familiar voice, the voice of this woman who loved me without limit or question, and who probably stopped traffic in order to get to me. That’s what I remember, friends: being filled with fear until I heard myself called by name, and by that calling immediately reassured that I was safe, and protected and loved by one who was not about to let me be lost and alone… ever.
William Willimon writes that whatever else can be said of us, at the heart of it all is the truth that each one of us is someone “to whom a name is given.” Normally, a name is a gift; most of us had nothing to do with what our name is; that was left long ago to our parents, and perhaps refined later by others in our lives. But whatever our name is and however it was attained, “life becomes a long process of trying that name on for size, growing up to it, answering to it, giving it meaning by the way we live our lives.” In the end, it’s our name that gives us identity before others and within ourselves. To have our name called creates recognition; it draws us into a circle of fellowship; it shows us that we are real, we are worthy, we are connected and we belong. Indeed, to be called by name expresses the love, care, and concern of the one who calls us.
So isn’t it interesting, as we’ve read this wonderful story of resurrection this morning, to realize that for Mary Magdelene, at least, it’s not the fact that the stone had been rolled from the tomb early on that morning, nor the evidence that the tomb was empty and now contained only grave clothes that brings her to the realization that Jesus had risen. On the contrary, this only grieved Mary all the more; because not only had her master died, but now she was thinking that Jesus’ body had been stolen, which was more than she could bear. Not even the appearance of “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying” could break her sorrow. No, it takes something else to convince her; to bring her to understanding and faith: it took his voice. And even then, it took something more (because remember, at first Mary assumed that voice she was hearing was that of the gardener); it’s only when the risen Lord speaks her name (“Mary,”), that she recognizes him and knows, with her whole heart, that as incredible, unlikely and utterly amazing as such a thing would be, it was true: he had risen, indeed!
Actually, there’s an apt comparison here to what John records Jesus as having said about his being the good shepherd; how the good shepherd knows his own, “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… and [how] the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:3-4) And theologically speaking, that’s just exactly the kind of connection that John’s spiritually poetic heart would want us to make. In truth, though, I suspect that for Mary it was a whole lot more basic than that: like a distraught child in a schoolyard finding comfort in a mother’s voice, it took the familiar, loving voice of her master to transform her fear and hopelessness into adoration and wonder; moving her from grief to joy, and from death to life.
In his resurrection, Jesus had broken the bonds of sin and death and had brought the whole world to a place of reconciliation before God. But in calling her by name in the early twilight of that first Easter morning, Jesus had given to Mary a new life, a new pathway, a new future with unlimited possibilities. Christ had risen, and the risen Christ had called her by name; and that changed everything forever!
Well, this morning we’ve gathered to lift up hearts, hands and voices in celebration that at a place and time some two millennia ago, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…” and on the third day, raised him up that this world will always know the depth and scope of God’s love and desire to reconcile the world unto himself. But understand this: it’s not merely a historical event that leads us to sing songs of triumph, not even when that historical event is well considered to be the central event of all of human history. What truly brings us to shouting our alleluias today is that even now, even on this particular Easter morning, the Lord is calling each one of us by name; giving us the good news of his resurrection, and of redemption and hope.
The Lord calls us by name (!): with a voice that brings light into our dark times; with a voice provides a palpable feeling of peace in the moments of our lives that are decidedly chaotic, and seemingly without hope; with a voice that brings us the assurance that even in our worst possible moments that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation [that] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38)
Just like Mary, I suppose, for most of us looking around at the world as it is, it’s hard to grasp this kind of incredible promise. But when by the grace of God we hear his voice; when we hear it speaking to our heart and calling us by name, we know, we believe, and everything changes forever. That is good news, indeed – the best ever! – and I hope and pray for you on this blessed Easter morning that you’ll hear that voice; that perhaps in the quiet of this new dawn, your heart will be quiet as well, quiet enough to recognize the sound of your name being called, so that his resurrection might also be yours!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! He has risen for the whole world . . . and he has risen for you and for me!
ALLELUIA, and Thanks Be to God!
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry